Isaac Levitan

Portrait of Isaac Levitan

Isaac Levitan: (1860-1900) was a classical Russian landscape painter. He later became known for starting the trend of “mood landscape”. He was born in Kibartai, Lithuania on 30th August 1860 and died in Moscow, Russia in 1900 aged 40.

Major Works

“Autumn Day, Sokolniki” (1879)
“Birch Grove” (1889)
“The Vladimir Road” (1892)
“Above the Eternal Peace” (1894)
“In the Alps in the Spring” (1897)
“Haystacking” (1900)

Biography Timeline

Isaac Levitan was born on 18th August 1860 in Kibarty, Russian Empire (now Kibartai village in Lithuania). His father was Ilya Abramovich Levitan who worked on the railways.

1873: The family had moved to Moscow in search of a better life where his father works as a tutor. He follows his brother Adolf into the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in September.

1874: He attends Alexei Savrasov’s landscape classes. 

1875: His mother dies. Nikolai Chekhov, the brother of Anton Chekhov, enrols at the art school and the two become friends.

1877: His father dies and the family descend into poverty and he has to spend his nights at the art school as he has nowhere to live. He gets a bursary because of his talent. His works are first publicly exhibited in a student division of the “Peredvizhniki” (the Wanderers, or the Society of Traveling Exhibitions) and the press write encouraging reviews and he is awarded two silver medals.

1878: He exhibits “A View of the Simonov Monastery” which sells the next year earning him his first money.

1879: In May Jews are expelled from Moscow after the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander the Second and he is forced to leave. He goes to the village of Saltykovka, but manages to get funding from the Teachers’ Council of the Art School. He is allowed to return to Moscow in the autumn. He paints “Autumn Day. Sokolniki”.

1880: He exhibits several landscapes at the second exhibition of the Art School’s students. The art collector Pavel Tretyakov buys one of them and continues to purchase his work over the next few years. He paints stage scenery for a private opera for the patron Savva Mamontov.

1881: He receives a silver medal for a drawing of a model and money for travel to the Volga region. His sister becomes ill and he spends the money on doctors instead. He begins to give private lessons to Yelena Nenarokova and becomes a friend of the family. 

1882: He begins working as a graphic artist and lithographer for the “Moskva” (Moscow) magazine.

1883: He begins working as a graphic artist and lithographer for the “Raduga” (Rainbow) magazine and the next year works for “Volna” (Wave).

1883: He stops attending classes. 

1884: The Art School Teachers Council dismiss him from the Art School with a diploma of an unranked artist however he is accepted by the “Peredvizhniki” artists and exhibits with them. In the autumn he attends watercolour morning sessions and drawing evening sessions at the home of Vasily Polenov.

1885: He rents rooms in Moscow and attends drawing eevnts at the home of Savva Mamontov. He creates several theatre sets including for “Faust” by Charles Gounod, “A Life for the Tsar” by Mikhail Glinka and “Snow Maiden” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. During the summer he moves in with the Chekhovs. He paints “The River Istra” and gives it to Chekhov. 

1886: In March he moves to Crimea and spends two months sketching. He sells many works turning his finances around. He meets Dr Pavel Dmitrievich Kuvshinnikov and falls for his married daughter Sofia Kuvshinnikova.

1887: He visits the Volga River in the spring and summers with the Chekhovs.

1888: He visits several cities on the Volga and paints landscapes there. He paints “Portrait of Sofia Kuvshinnikova”.

1889: He becomes a member of the Moscow Society of Art and Literature. During the winter he falls ill with typhus.

1890: In March he visits Berlin, Paris, Nice, Menton, Venice and Florence and is charmed by the small towns of Italy. During the summer he returns to Russia and paints “On a Gloomy Day by the Volga”.

1891: “Quiet Abode” is shown at the Peredvizhniki exhibition and wins him public acclaim. He has an on-off affair with Sofia.

1892: His affair gives rise to Anton Chekhov’s play “The Grasshopper” and also a threatened duel between the two men. Despite an apology the two men don’t make it up until January 1895. In September Jews are again expelled from Moscow and he leaves for Boldino. His friends enabled him to return by December. 

1894: He exhibits two works at the World Fair in London. He travels across Europe including Vienna, the Italian Lakes and Paris. Sofia Kuvshinnikova leaves her husband and he stays with her during the summer and autumn. Dr Alexei Langovoi diagnoses him with a serious heart disease.

1895: He paints “In March”, “Fresh Wind. The Volga”, “Golden Autumn”. In June he attempts suicide due to neurasthenia.

1896: He shows oils and watercolour in Odessa and eighteen works at the Russian national exhibition of Arts and Industries in Nizhny Novgorod. He also exhibits at the Munich Secession group. During the summer he visits Lake Ladoga in Finland. In the autumn he has a major heart attack. He celebrates the New Year with the Chekhovs in Melikhovo. 

1897: He paints “Remains of the Past. Twilight. Finland” and “In the North”. He visits Italy and Germany and paints the Alps in the summer. In December he has another heart attack. He is elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts.

1898: In March he has a fever and goes to Nauheim for his health. He spends the summer back in Russia on the Bogorodskoe estate near Moscow and Anton Chekhov visits him there. He illustrates a three-volume collection of the works of Alexander Pushkin to mark his centenary. He exhibits at a show of Russian and Finnish artists organised in St. Petersburg by Sergei Diaghilev.

1899: In February Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich visits his studio. He exhibits at an international exhi­bition organised by the World of Art magazine and attends meetings of the literary group Sreda (Wed­nesday). In April he is issued with official per­mission to live in Moscow. He spends the New Year holidays with Anton Chekhov in Yalta, Crimea where he sketches “Twilight. Stacks of Hay”. The sculptor Paolo Trubetskoi makes a small bronze statue of him and gives it to him as a gift.

1900: In February he goes to St. Petersburg for the opening of the 28th “Peredvizhniki” exhibition. He shows in a Russian artists’ exhibition in Riga and in the Russian art section at the World Fair (Exposition Universelle) in Paris. Catching a cold he returns returns to Moscow. 

Isaac Levitan died on 4th August 1900 in Moscow, Russia after catching a cold. He was buried in the Jewish Dorogo-Milovskoe cemetery. (In 1941 his remains were moved to the Novodevichy Cemetery next to Anton Chekhov’s grave). 

Further Information

Chronological list of works.

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